Dec 14, 2021 • 25M

$1 Per Milliliter

Eau de vie is not cheap. But it's one of life's hidden pleasures.

Jason Wilson
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It’s no secret that I love clear fruit brandies from Austria, Germany, France, and even the US. For more almost two decades, I have been almost evangelical about my admiration for eau de vie, schnapps, or whatever it is you call fruit brandy. I enjoy the whole universe of unaged spirits made from cherries (kirsch), plums (slivovitz), pears (Poire Williams), or any other fruits — apricots, quince, elderberries — or pretty much anything that grows: carrots, pine buds from Douglas fir trees, etc. Yet among all the things I champion, these are the toughest sell to my friends and colleagues.

Part of the reason, I think is that Americans generally fear clear high-proof spirits served in tiny glasses. They look like they will burn. I will go to my grave saying that if they are well-made, they absolutely do not.

Another reason for their lack of popularity is that the word schnapps has taken on a very bad association with things like Rumple Minze, Goldschläger, and Peachtree “schnapps” — especially bad among people of my generation who drank them as shots or in Fuzzy Navels in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, all of these awful spirits are lower-proof liqueurs and not schnapps at all. Schnapps has no added sugar.

Good eau de vie is a complex, dry, delicate spirit, and perhaps that’s what makes it hard to understand for someone who loves, say, bourbon. It’s a spirit sold in small bottles that you nip at over time, a perfect way to end a meal or an evening. Look for top producers such as Laurent Cazottes, based near Gaillac in southwest France, or Hans Reisetbauer, based near Linz, Austria.

An eau de vie should be the very essence of the ripe fruit used to distill it — nothing else. Think of it as a snapshot of the fruit harvest. That’s something that often gets lost in the translation: great eau de vie starts with great fruit.

“We like to compare the way we work with wine producers,” said legendary schnapps maker Alex Rainer of Rochelt in a conversation I had with him earlier this year. The vast majority of the quality comes from the raw material. I would say 80% of our work has to be done in a very good way before it even comes to the distillery. So it is all about the fruit.”

Take, for example, Rochelt’s Wachauer Marille, their brandy made from specific apricots harvested in Austria’s Wachau region, which also happens to be a prestigious, world-renowned wine region for grüner veltliner and riesling. “It’s what the French will call the terroir,” said Rainer. “It’s just perfect, not only for the white wines, but also for the apricots.”

But it’s not just terroir. Fruit for great eaux de vie needs much longer ripening than fruit picked for market. Rainer says most of the neighboring orchards are picked and empty before his growers even begin their harvest. That patience extends, after distillation, to the maturation. Most of Rochelt’s fruit brandies will mature in glass balloons (not oak), covered only with a linen cloth, for more than a decade.

Of course, that kind of time and quality comes at a price. In the case of Rochelt apricot, that price is $375 for 375 milliliters, or one dollar per milliliter.

Still, there are plenty of good-value options for those looking to dip their toes into the world of fruit brandy. While Austria and France have a long tradition (and big price tag) fine, affordable eaux de vie can be found in many places — three domestic producers I really like are Clear Creek, in Oregon, Rootstock, in upstate New York, and Öömrang in Washington. One bottle that I feel like never gets the love it deserves is Schladerer Kirschwasser, which you can almost always find for under $50.

This Week’s Brandy Advocate Specials

Our retail partner, Off Premise in Chicago, is offering Brandy Advocate readers a 10% discount on several special bottlings with the promo code BRANDYADVOCATE3. This week we’re focused on fruit brandies from Reisetbauer, Rochelt, and Laurent Cazottes.

Click here for eau de vie offer